Sneaky Pete Kleinow: August 20, 1934 to January 6, 2007
Folks out here on the west coast had known for a while that Sneaky Pete Kleinow was struggling with Alzheimer’s, so it wasn’t a complete shock when a friend called to let me know he had passed on. At first, I wondered if the mainstream press would acknowledge his passing. For all of his influence, he never sold that many records, and these days, that often determines who gets the headlines. But soon enough I saw him mentioned in the cable news tickers and on various web sources. By now I’ve read all the reports, copied verbatim from press releases, and they got the facts of his life mostly right. But to me, they missed the whole point.
Sneaky Pete Kleinow was an original member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The band, with Kleinow on pedal steel, Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and Chris Ethridge, recorded two albums that helped define what we know as “country rock.” After the Burritos broke up, Sneaky recorded with artists ranging from John Lennon to Stevie Wonder. He enjoyed a second career as a visual effects artist, working on TV shows such as The Twilight Zone and Gumby (for which he also composed the theme) and films such as Under Siege and The Empire Strikes Back.
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, he was a family man, married to Ernestine for 54 years and fathering daughters Anita and Tammy, and sons, Martin, Aaron and Cosmo. Those are the facts. But for readers of this magazine, it is his psychedelic solos on legendary Burrito Brothers tracks such as “Christine’s Tune” for which he will likely be remembered.
When most fans and writers speak of the Burrito Brothers, they mention their mix of rock, soul and country. What’s often not noted is that the thing that lifted the band from being just another bunch of longhairs playing cowboy was the insidiousness of what Kleinow was doing on that stool at the side of the stage. Here was Nashville’s sacred instrument, twisted into the service of the devil’s own rock ‘n’ roll. There could be no greater heresy.
While singers can drawl, croon or scream, and guitarists can range from twang to jazz, no instrument is as purely, single-mindedly “country” as the pedal steel. To sit behind that mass of wires and levers was to pledge allegiance to the Grand Ole Opry itself, at least until Sneaky showed up. Rusty Young, with Poco, created near-perfect country rock, and Al Perkins has technical genius (as evidenced by his later work on Parsons’ solo records), but Pete Kleinow’s fuzz-tone steel had a sound unmistakable in its fearlessness and originality.
I last saw Sneaky Pete out in Joshua Tree a couple of years ago; word was that he wasn’t doing well and this might be the last time we’d get to see him play. Some of his old friends helped set up his steel and he played a solid set in tribute to his old bandmate, Gram Parsons. It was a great show and also a nice gesture; to my mind, Parsons owed Sneaky more of a tribute than Pete owed Gram.
Hillman and Parsons personified the spirit of country boys who can’t help but rock, and Ethridge gave them southern soul. But if any one thing embodied the “cosmic” in Parsons’ “Cosmic American Music,” it was the psychedelic steel of Sneaky Pete.